Healthy kids’ meal options do work
A wave of change is beginning to take hold among fast food chains and restaurants that offer healthier options for kids, according to a new study.
In the summer of 2011, McDonald’s decided to “trim the fat” with their Happy Meals by offering healthier options like apple slices and skim milk, instead of French fries and pop. Four years after the “Happy Meal diet,” and several fast food chains following suit, the changes are making a positive difference.
“Our study showed that healthier children’s menu options were ordered a lot more often when those options were more prevalent and prominent on kids’ menus, highlighting the promise of efforts to shift the status quo and make healthier options the new norm,” said Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, research associate at ChildObesity180, in a news release. “Given how frequently kids go to restaurants and evidence that this can be linked with consuming excess calories, offering and promoting healthier menu options could play a role in reversing the childhood obesity epidemic.”
This study is the first of its kind to look at both patterns of children’s food plus a restaurant’s sales data after making menu changes.
“It’s great to show that when given the option, kids will choose the healthier meal choice,” says Barbara Fine, dietitian at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “An adult may associate eating out as a time to splurge, but kids do not usually have that same opinion. Kids want to eat food that looks and taste good.”
Silver Diner, a locally owned full-service family restaurant chain with fifteen locations in Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, transformed the diner based on guest feedback by adding a fresh and local menu offering 20 healthier meals and sides for kids.
In partnership with the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell program, changes to the menu included pancakes using unbleached flour, burgers made from antibiotic and hormone-free beef, milkshakes prepared with milk from local farms, and fresh fruit and vegetables locally grown from partnered farms.
A total of 350,000 children’s meals ordered were analyzed. The research also included a random subsample of 18,712 orders that occurred before and after the menu changes.
Study leaders found that 46 percent of children’s entrées ordered were options from the healthier kids’ meal compared to 3 percent before the menu changes. The proportion of kids’ meal orders that included at least one healthy side also increased dramatically from 26 percent before the changes to 70 percent after. Remarkably, overall chain revenue continued to grow, despite the menu changes.
Fine warns parents that having the knowledge to ask the right questions about the quality of food fast food restaurants are offering is key to making healthier choices.
“Many fast food restaurants use processed meats that are not all beef or all chicken, so check to see where the protein is coming from,” Fine says. “Eating out can result in higher salt, sugar and fats, so parents should eat out sparingly.”
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